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It's All About Who You Know and Your Local Network

When it comes to growing your local business, it’s all about who you know. You want to become the go-to accountant or architect that everyone recommends

But how do you get the mayor to call you every time her staff needs a floral arrangement? How do you get the police department to drop off their cruisers every time they need some maintenance?

Here’s the secret: you have to get involved.

Becoming an active member of your community gives you the opportunity to become the neighborhood’s gold standard. Not only does community involvement increase your visibility as a business owner, but it helps you meet new people and learn more about where you live and work. It makes you feel good about giving back to your neighbors.

A few tips:

So how does one get on the local high school’s good side? There are many, many ways you can give back - no matter what size your town or how limited your time. Here are a few ideas:

Give Discounts to Local Organizations

The high school needs their parking lot paved just like everyone else, so an area seal-coating shop might give a discount to help them out. It’s generous to give discounts to local businesses in need. Not only will it help make you some friends, but it will also help you become the go-to in your town or city.

Why? Not only will people appreciate your willingness to help out local organizations with tight budgets, but you’ll increase your visibility in the community. If people know you’re interested in more than just money, they’ll be more likely to choose you when they’re in need.

How? Call up the school superintendent, police department, and some other local businesses (such as law firms, banks, and accountants) to offer up your services (complete with discounts). Make personal relationships with these people-- this isn’t a sales call. Be willing to give pro-bono services for good causes (if you sell refrigerators, donate one to the local food pantry).

Example: Victoria Station, a restaurant in Salem, Massachusetts, gets creative with how they connect to the city. Each Monday through Wednesday, they host Parking Violation Night. If customers bring in their parking tickets and write a check payment, the restaurant will provide the postage, mail it, AND give the customer a free appetizer.

Victoria Station

A Brooklyn-based Chipotle has a secret discount: half-off tacos for police officers. Though this discount is unofficial (and actually prohibited), the NYPD frequents the Chipotle. We don’t recommend you give illegal discounts, but being on the same side as local services will bring in the biz.

Share Your Skills

Offer to write a column in the local newspaper or teach a class. Insightful content is always a valuable product - and it’s always in high demand.

Why? Not only will people appreciate your willingness to share, but it will help build name recognition and your ethos as an expert in your field. Each time your face and name appears in an article or you stand in front of a group, it’s a networking opportunity that allows you to say “Hi, I’m __________ and I do ________.”

How? Reach out to a weekly paper in your community, a business journal, or find a group looking for a speaker (the civic clubs in your area are a good place to start) and offer yourself as a resource. A quick search for “Civic Clubs in (insert your community)” should bring up some helpful results. From there, it’s really as easy as making the call to introduce yourself and being willing to volunteer your time.

Example:If you’re struggling to find one of these opportunities in the near future, it’s okay. Create one of your own - start a blog! Take Sarah Mackey, for example. As a non-profit Director, she’s created a blog that shares not only her knowledge on leading a successful Habitat for Humanity organization, but invites viewers to consider her as a speaker with a page dedicated solely to this area of her expertise. This page is exists not to promote her organization, but rather the tools she’s learned from her experience.

Sarah Mackey

Volunteer Your Time

This one’s a no-brainer. Find a cause you believe in and rally your team around it. Maybe it’s restoring the town bike trails or painting a mural at a school; use your talents and interests to help a relevant cause.

Why? By pooling your resources into a group, it often results in a larger impact - and whether you use this as a morale-builder with your staff, or you go it alone, volunteering makes you a contributing, engaged citizen.

How? There are many ways you can go about finding your community’s volunteer needs. Call up your town or city hall to ask about events. You can also check the VolunteerMatch.org listings for your area. There, you’ll find a description of the organization, the help they need, and how to contact them.

Example: Siemasko + Verbridge, an architecture and design firm in Beverly, Massachusetts, gives back to the community by providing architectural plans for local non-profits, such as Haven from Hunger, a food bank.

The firm shared their work on their Facebook page, garnering 18 likes (quite a few for a local biz!):

Siemasko + Verbridge

Brad Farris, Principal at Anchor Advisors in Chicago, has been volunteering at his church, with a local arts organization, and at a college campus outreach program for several years—and he’s seen the benefits for both his community and his business.

“I always recommend joining boards of NFP that you care about. It's a great way to use your leadership skills, benefit a cause you care about and meet some other interesting people. It's never about making that ‘one right connection,’ but more about having a larger group of people who know what you are good at who might recommend you,” he says.

Sponsor an Event or Share a Space

If you don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to volunteer, give your resources in another way - through a donation, lending a meeting space for a community group, or sponsoring a worthy cause. Different organizations have different needs, so if you’re not sure how you can help, just ask.

Why? As you connect with people from your community, you’ll hear about the existing needs for area projects—a new slide at the playground, volunteers for park clean-up days, maybe even a book club that recently lost their meeting space at the local coffee shop. All of these are opportunities for you to step in and help.

How? You can add a page to your company website offering a free meeting space, sponsor a local 5K, or collect change at the register to donate back to a cause. Check your local newspaper for organizations looking for sponsors.

Example: Isringhausen Imports, a car dealership in Central Illinois, is an example of a business known for their willingness to give back to the community. They’ve created “Isringhausen Cares”, a program that gives away thousands of dollars each year to an area non-profit. Not only is it helpful to the causes they support, but it garners local press coverage and increases exposure for the business. For both parties, it’s a win-win.

Isringhausen Imports

Papa Gino’s is a large corporation, but local franchises can put on “Five-Hour Fundraisers” to connect with organizations in their communities. During a predetermined five hour time slot, not-for-profit groups can earn 20% of all Papa Gino sales.

Papa Gino's

And make sure you pair your social media strategy with your events. Laura Fitton, queen of social media at HubSpot, otherwise known as @pistachio, offers her social and event marketing tips:

"Social media + local + events = a fantastic recipe for building business and community.

For your next business event:

  • Promote on your social channels and make it easy for customers, fans, and attendees to do so (include suggested tweets in email or other correspondence about the event)
  • Use a unique #hashtag so attendees can follow the event, meet (and stay in touch with) each other, and people who can't make it but follow those tweeting about it become curious about what it was.
  • During the event make it easy for attendees to follow your accounts, and to share their impressions.
  • Set up a computer and display screen that "follows" the hashtag and more attendees will want to tweet their way onto that screen."

Join a Club

Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, BNI, a niche business club…it’s really up to you. These local organizations bring together business owners with the aim of working together to improve the community.

Why? These clubs offer the opportunity to share information and connect with other active participants in your community. And by pooling your resources into a group effort, the impact is often much larger. An added benefit to clubs: Getting referrals. Networking often leads to referrals, and referrals lead to business. If people in your area know what you specialize in, trust you, and know that you do what you do well, they’ll be happy to recommend you.

How? Do a quick search for “networking groups in (your area)” and take a look around the listed organizations. Go to a meeting or two at a few different clubs to get an idea of what you like and dislike. Or, if you already know someone who is part of a club you’re curious about, just ask to be their guest for a meeting. The secret to finding a club that’s the right fit is giving yourself several options to choose from. Get out there and shake some hands!

Example: Marcy Patterson, publisher at The Source, a media outlet for Morgan County, Illinois, uses her connections at Kiwanis Club to stay on top of upcoming events. This helps her come up with story ideas for the weekly newspaper her company publishes. It’s also allowed her to become a connector for people and businesses throughout her community. Win-win!

Stephen Brudner, managing director for Merchant Services Consulting Group, is an active member of his local BNI club. Unlike other community organizations, members have to apply. BNI focuses on generating new business, rather than just making friends. Stephen is able to refer his customers to fellow members of his club, and they refer their customers to him. By knowing the best business-people, each BNI member becomes a trustworthy authority on everything business.

Find a Local Meet-up Group

Meetup.com is filled with groups for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and industry leaders looking to connect. Joining a meet-up will not only help you meet others in your boat, but can also boost your image as a thought leader in the community

Why? Meetup.com has everything under the sun, so you’ll be able to find a group that meets your interests. Whether you want to strut your stuff in the startup community, join a group of fellow landscapers, or find some other accountants to strategize with, you’ll feel at-home at Meetup.com!

How? Visit Meetup.com and do a simple search for what interests you. For example, if you search for St. Louis Startups, you’ll see these groups:

Startup Grind

You can easily join one of these groups and go to some events to get yourself on the map.

Serve on a Non-Profit Board

Non-profits in every community are in need of well-connected and knowledgeable community members to help guide their organizations.

Why? Serving as a board member opens up opportunities to network at events, influence a cause you care about, and to really understand the inner-workings of the organization you choose to support.

How? The board member process works differently for each organization, but a great way to get your foot in the door is to first serve as a volunteer. Or, you can simply ask the executive director if the organization is in need of any additional board members. Sometimes there are several things that accompany a board seat (an annual donation, fundraising support in the community, volunteer days) so make sure you know the details before you jump in.

Example:“The board work provides just the right amount of mental stimulation to make me feel involved and relevant,” Kerry Hannon writes in Forbes. Hannon encourages more experienced professionals looking to transition from the corporate to non-profit world to get their feet wet by serving on a NPO Board.

Utilize the Chamber of Commerce

These organizations are helpful both as a tool for promoting your business and networking with others, but are an excellent resource for learning as well.

Why? The Chamber of Commerce offers educational seminars, sends out a newsletter (where you can share news about your business), provides discounts at member organizations, and holds networking events where you can meet and connect with other members of the business community. It’s the world’s largest business organization.

How? You’ll first fill out an application and then meet with a Chamber representative to discuss your needs as well as their offerings. There is typically an annual cost associated with membership with different price levels offering different levels of exposure.

Example: “I developed an invaluable mentor relationship with a [Chamber program] instructor from Astra Zeneca, Charles Gillean,” says Dick Mass, Vice President at Allcell Rentals of his Chamber experience. “He helped me understand a lot of unfamiliar information, learn how to evaluate private and public businesses, and define the best direction for my company’s growth.”

Cost: Based on the level of commitment, you can expect to spend $175 - $3,000 per year on Chamber membership.

Sponsor a Sports Team

Local Little Leagues often invite businesses to sponsor their teams. Sponsoring a team not only puts your name on the map, but you can get the name of your business on a jersey—great community marketing.

Why? Sponsoring a local sports team shows you’re not only committed to your community, but also to the kids who will inherit it. It’ll help you get your name out there while helping kids play ball!

How? Contact some local sports teams to see how sponsorship works, as it varies from community to community.

Example: They Might Be Giants, a funky band who won the 2009 GRAMMY for Best Children’s Album, sponsored a Seattle-based Little League team to show their solidarity with the city as well as the kids (their listeners). Don’t you think the parents wanted to buy their albums?

They Might Be Giants

Cost: Little League offers a number of sponsorship packages, but you can get yourself on a team’s jersey for $500.

Get Involved

You’ve got the how and why to getting involved in your community--you just need to decide how you will put it into action. Remember: Giving back is good for everyone—and it’s a grassroots approach to making connections wherever you are.

When it comes to marketing your local business, you don't have to do it alone. Partnering with other companies that target your audience can be a more cost-effective, efficient, and successful way to acquire new customers. Ask yourself... who has your next customer as their current customer? – Andrew Davis, Author of Brandscaping

Take the leap into something outside your comfort zone and use your skills to make the place you live and grow better than you found it.